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  • Context (TH | DTE): SC criticised the Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC) for not considering the recommendations of the Technical Advisory Committee report (TEC).

Background

  • The GE mustard was developed in the 1990s and patented in 2002 by CGMCP. (The Centre for Genetic Manipulation of Crop Plants, University of Delhi).
  • it was developed using barnase, barnstar, and bar genes.

Near approval of GM Mustard in 2017

  • In September 2015, CGMCP submitted an application to the GEAC requesting permission for the environmental release of DMH-11.
  • In 2016, GEAC constituted a Sub-Committee to review the technical details and Dossier.
    • The Sub-Committee submitted in its final report, “Assessment of Food and Environmental Safety (AFES)”, approved for the environmental release.
    • It concluded that the hybrid DMH-11 does not pose any risk of causing any adverse effects on human and animal health and safety.
  • In May 2017, GEAC recommended environmental release of GE Mustard for approval by MoEFCC.
  • However, the approval was not given by MoEFCC due to the pressure from activists, scientists, etc.

How did the issue resurface?

  • On October 18, 2022, the MoEFCC approved the environmental release of GM mustard.
  • In November 2022, the SC issued a status quo. Since A group of petitioners challenged the decision. (activist Aruna Rodrigues, NGO Gene Campaign, etc.)
  • They seek a moratorium on releasing any GMOs until independent expert bodies conduct a comprehensive bio-safety protocol in the public domain.

Earlier Committee reports have called for a ban on GMOs

  • The ‘Jairam Ramesh Report’ (2010)
  • The Sopory Committee Report (August 2012)
  • The Parliamentary Standing Committee (PSC) Report on GM crops (2012)
  • Supreme Court-appointed TEC Final Report (2013)
    • HT crops are unsuitable for the Indian context and warned of serious risks to biodiversity, ecology, and sustainability of agriculture.
    • It calls for a ban on the environmental release of any GMO where India is the centre of origin or diversity.
  • Centers of origin refer to the regions where a particular species is believed to have originated or evolved.
  • Centers of diversity refer to the regions where a particular species has the highest genetic variation.

India and GM crops

  • In 2004, India allowed commercial cultivation of GM cotton (non-edible), which now accounts for more than 90% of the nation’s harvest.
  • In 2010, GM eggplant (brinjal) also cleared GEAC’s review, but an indefinite moratorium was placed on its introduction, citing safety concerns.
  • Dhara Mustard Hybrid-11 (DMH-11) will be the second GM plant, and the first Indigenously developed GM food crop to reach India’s farmers (if approved).

Science behind DMH11

  • Mustard is a self-pollinating plant. (flowers contain both male and female organs).
  • Therefore, a pollination control mechanism is required to encourage cross-pollination for hybrid seed production.
  • For this, one of the two parental lines of a hybrid must be made male sterile so that it receives pollen from the other parent to form a seed.
  • Male sterile lines can be developed using,
    • cytoplasmic male sterility (CMS) (conventional breeding technique).
    • Genetic engineering using transgenes.
  • Examples of self-pollinating plants: Wheat, barley, oats, rice, tomatoes, potatoes, apricots, and peaches.
  • CMS systems have been found inadequate for large-scale hybrid seed production. Hence, there is a need to use Barnase-Barstar technology.
  • Cytoplasmic male sterility (CMS) is a phenomenon in plants where a plant cannot produce functional pollen due to genetic factors in the cytoplasm rather than the nuclear genome.

A diagram of a plant Description automatically generated

Barnase-barstar system

  • It is a genetic engineering approach used in plants, particularly in crops like mustard, to achieve controlled male sterility and facilitate hybrid seed production.
  • The technology utilises three genes derived from the soil bacterium Bacillus amyloliquefaciens (bar, barnase and barstar).
    • In nature, bacterium excretes a defence protein called Barnase (ribonuclease), degrading competing bacteria’s RNA in an ecological niche.
    • To protect itself from Barnase, the bacterium produces another protein called Barstar, which tightly binds with Barnase and renders it ineffective.
  • The insertion of the Barnase gene in the mustard plant induces genetic male sterility by preventing the production of the male gametophytes (pollen grains).
  • Meanwhile, the Barstar gene restores the plant’s ability to produce fertile hybrid seeds.
  • The Bar gene is responsible for the Glufosinate (herbicide) resistance.

Why hybrids are needed?

  • Crossing of genetically diverse parents results in hybrids with increased yield (20-25 per cent) and adaptation. This phenomenon is known as hybrid vigourorheterosis.
  • It has been widely exploited in crops like rice, maize, pearl millet, sunflower and many vegetables.
  • The difference between a transgenic or GM and a hybrid plant is that a transgenic plant contains external DNA, and the latter only contains DNA from both parents via fertilisation.
  • All genetically engineered organisms and products are regulated in India as per “Rules for Manufacture, Use/Import/Export & Storage of Hazardous Micro-organisms/GE organisms or cells, 1989” notified under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986.

Government’s argument

  • Economic security: Hybrids yield higher than pure-line varieties and will help the country reduce its edible oil deficit.
    • India faces a severe shortage of edible oils. Imports of over 14 million tonnes (around Rs 1.5 lakh crore) in foreign exchange in 2021-22.
    • The government claims that transgenic seeds could raise yields to 3-3.5 tonnes per hectare while resistant to pests that cause white rust.
  • White rust is caused by several fungus-like oomycetes.
  • Symptoms: Light yellow areas develop on leaves.
  • Food Security: Given the increased growth of the Indian population and urbanisation, GM crops offer promising solutions to meet the world’s food security needs.
  • Safety: Several international organisations (FAO, WHO, OECD) have concluded that biotechnology products are as safe and nutritious.
  • Use of technology: A major challenge today is to develop low-input, high-output agriculture. This cannot be achieved without technology.

Concerns against GM Crops

  • Threatens the future of apiculture export: Mustard honey crystallises quickly, making export to the US and EU feasible. But these countries also demand GM-free certification.
  • No increase in Yield: The highest yields in mustard are from the five countries that do not grow GM mustard (U.K., France, Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic) and not from the GM-growing U.S. or Canada (FAO data).
  • Issue of Resistance: Besides White Rust, the mustard crop is also prone to other diseases. The pests and insects may grow resistant to the transgenic crop after a decade.
  • Undesirable consequences
    • Honeybees could transfer the genes of GM mustard to other plants, which may lead to the growth of unwanted and invasive weeds.
    • Transgenic technology, unlike other technologies, is uncontrollable and irreversible after environmental release.
    • There are also no long-term studies in the Indian context on the metabolic impact of barstar and barnase genes on the human and animal body.
  • Regulatory violations: Civil society groups have put out detailed evidence-based reports to showcase several illegalities concerning regulatory appraisal.
    • For example, the full biosafety dossier of GM mustard has not been published on the regulator’s website.
    • There has been no health expert involved in GM mustard safety appraisal.
    • Explicit objections from numerous states were ignored even though agriculture and health are state subjects per the IC.
  • Failure of Bt cotton: There was a proposed link between the poor performance of Bt cotton and many farmers’ suicides, particularly in 2004.
  • Issues in classifying GM mustard as a herbicide-tolerant (HT) crop: The government argues it is not a herbicide-tolerant (HT) crop. However, GM mustard is an HT crop because it can withstand herbicides due to the presence of bar genes.

Way forward

Genetic Engineering Appraisal Committee (GEAC)

  • It functions under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC).
  • It is the apex body that allows for the commercial release of GM crops, including field trials.
  • It evaluates activities that use hazardous microorganisms and recombinants on a large scale, focusing on their environmental impact.
  • It is chaired by the Special Secretary/Additional Secretary of MoEFCC and co-chaired by a Department of Biotechnology (DBT) representative.
  • Presently, it has 24 members and meets every month to review the applications.

Rapeseed and Mustard

  • Rapeseed and mustard comprise several oilseeds as rai, sarson, toria and taramira.
  • These are subtropical crops cultivated during rabi season in north-western and central parts of India.
  • These are frost-sensitive crops, and their yields fluctuate from year to year.

Marker-Assisted Selection (MAS)

  • It is high-tech conventional breeding.
  • It uses advances in DNA sequencing to locate genetic markers linked to desired qualities (in this case, yield).
  • This will enable breeders to develop plants with the desired traits through non-GM.
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